Oh! No! Ethnobotany

Oh No! Ethnobotany, a hazard communication-training program that addresses health and safety issues inherent in the handling and storage of hazardous ethnobotany, was designed, developed, and prototyped at the Science Museum of Minnesota by Rose Kubiatowicz. The program looks beyond the wide range of residual toxic chemicals present from the treatment of an artifact to specifically address concerns raised by toxic chemicals inherent in the object itself.

Oh No! Ethnobotany is a concept that refers to both hazardous ethnobotany and also to a hazard communication-training program that focuses on establishing workplace policies and procedures that address safe handling and storage.

Ethnobotany is defined as the study of how and why people use and conceptualize plants in their local environments. It is the scientific study of the relationship between people and plants. Most commonly, ethnobotany refers to the study of Indigenous uses of plants as medicine, food, natural resources, clothing, and ritual. Although ethnobotany is distinctive as an academic field of study, it maintains a multidisciplinary character in both theory and methods. Research is often conducted combining botanical theories with those from anthropology, as well as from other fields including linguistics, pharmacology, musicology, toxicology, architecture, conservation, biology, and many others.

The Oh No! Ethnobotany project is a program that can help museums and other natural history collectors provide safer places for both work and research. When museums have information about the chemical composition of hazardous ethnobotany, steps can be taken to reduce exposures and intoxications; promote understanding of ethnobotany, pharmacology and toxicology; and establish safer work practices. These efforts help prevent the occurrence of work- and research-related illnesses and injuries.

Some parts of Oh No! Ethnobotany are technical, but the basic concept is simple. In fact, the components reflect and build upon what the Science Museum of Minnesota has been doing for years. Simply, existing practices are enhanced to meet new policy recommendations that information is effectively transmitted through a four-part program that includes written hazard communications, ethnobotanical material safety data sheets (EMSDS), labels, and other forms of warning and training.

Ethnobotany material safety data sheets, or EMSDS, are modeled after material safety data sheets (MSDS), which are well-known industry wide chemical information sheets. Employers are required by OSHA to post a MSDS for each chemical used or stored in the workplace.

EMSDS, similar in concept, build upon the familiarity with and acceptance of the MSDS. However, the EMSDS is applicable to the museum situation and fills a unique need that specifically addresses the use of hazardous ethnobotanical objects. Here are examples of the EMSDS for the Precatory Pea, Barbasco, Curare, and Ayahuasca.

Oh No! Ethnobotany uses evocative pictographs that are designed to draw attention to the location of hazardous ethnobotany and to the existence of an EMSDS. The pictographs effectively elicit interest and build upon familiar iconography associated with themes of poison, hazard, caution, and fright. Oh No! Ethnobotany uses a three-tier labeling system in storage. Labels are placed on the outside storage cabinet door, on the cabinet drawer containing hazardous ethnobotany, and on the object mount itself. The labels feature cartoons based on traditional poison images, created by the late Verne Anderson, a well-known local artist and longtime museum volunteer.

Staff members, interns, volunteers, and visiting researchers who may be exposed are given information and training prior to initial assignment with hazardous ethnobotany. Numerous studies have shown the greater the a priori perception of hazardousness, the more likely people will look for and read a warning, and the more likely they will comply by taking safety precautions. Hazardous ethnobotany drawer label The Oh No! Ethnobotany program uses a combination of pictographs, signal words, labels, EMSDS, computer-based instruction, and cognitive apprenticeship to provide training. Cognitive apprenticeship is an instructional method that anchors training within the work situation.

The underlying purpose of Oh No! Ethnobotany is to reduce the incidence of ethnobotany source illnesses and injuries. This can be accomplished by modifying behavior through the provision of hazard information and information about protective measures. In general, the most important aspect of Oh No! Ethnobotany is to ensure that staff and visiting researchers are aware when they are exposed to hazardous ethnobotany, that they know how to understand labels and EMSDS, and that, as a consequence of learning this information, they are following appropriate protective measures.

Oh No! Ethnobotany was supported in part by the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) 2001 Faber Award.

Contact project developer Rose Kubiatowicz at rosekubiatowicz@gmail.com for further information about the Oh No! Ethnobotany program.